Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Patricia McKillip
by Darrell Schweitzer
Patricia Anne McKillip of fantasy and science fiction. For her novels, she has
won the World Fantasy Award, Locus Award, and Mythopoeic Award, and
received numerous nominations for a variety of other awards. In 2008, she received
the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement. Works include the Riddle-Master
trilogy (The Riddle Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, Harpist in the Wind), the
Cygnet duology, the Kyreol duology, numerous stand-alone novels, and countless
(Interview recorded at the World Fantasy Convention, 2010)
SCHWEITZER: Let's go right to the heart of things. Why fantasy? Why do you
write fantasy? Everybody has a different answer to that.
McKILLIP: I started writing when I was very young and they tell you to write
what you know, and what I knew was fantasy, I suppose. When I was seventeen I
stayed up until three in the morning reading Tolkien and was so astonished by it, I
think, because I am a post-Baby Boom child and was brought up very rigidly
Catholic. So, as a Catholic your mythological world has a wall around it, and
Tolkien just tipped that wall right over. He demolished it. He made you feel like
the imagination was something you could keep on going through and go through
and never find an end to.
So I started doing research. I literally tried to find his worlds. I didn't know what
they were, whether they were real or not. I looked in history and then I got the idea
of looking in mythology, poetry, and legends and got into really finding his
sources. Things grew from there, and I had to write the trilogy.
SCHWEITZER: American culture seems to have been very much cut off from the
fantastic and from myth. I think the reason that Tolkien took everybody by storm is
that, before that, what was there for most people except Disney versions of fairy
tales? So, were you aware that there was an actual fantasy literature, as opposed to
McKILLIP: Well, there wasn't very much. When I was growing up there was
Andre Norton. There was Fritz Leiber. I grew up partly overseas, so I had to read
what was in the library there, because my dad was in the Air Force, and I would
read whatever was on the air bases, which is where I ran into Fritz Leiber. I loved
his stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and Andre Norton was also very
interesting to me, but that was about all there was until I got into college and I read
Ursula Le Guin. I thought her science fiction was wonderful. I can't remember
anybody else. I was going for a master's in literature at that point and was reading
anything but fantasy, and that's about all the fantasy I can remember.
SCHWEITZER: Like most of us Baby Boomers, I'm a child of the Ballantine
Adult Fantasy Series. Were you much influenced by those books that Lin Carter
McKILLIP: That was after I'd gotten started, after I got published, that they came
out. But, no, I did not read a lot of those books.
SCHWEITZER: So you may be one of the last fantasy writers who began
writing without any sense of being part of a generic tradition. What Carter did was
assemble a canon, so subsequent writers would see themselves as being part of that
canon. But you would have started writing before there was a canon. Is this so?
McKILLIP: At least as an English major I didn't look in the part of the library
where they might have put a fantasy canon. Literally in the bookstores there was
one small shelf of fantasy and one small shelf of science fiction. Tiny. Two feet
long. That was it.
SCHWEITZER: When I was in college there were still professors who had been
programmed to despise James Branch Cabell. Lord Dunsany was okay because of
his association with Yeats, but otherwise the impression you got from the
educational system is that fantasy is acceptable literature up to about Mark Twain,
and only if it is satire.
McKILLIP: Even the very few writing teachers I had did not know what to make
of my fantasy. I took about three writing courses. I went to San Jose State, which
did not have a writing program then. It was encompassed within the English
Literature department. Nobody knew what to do with fantasy. I tried writing some
modern stuff, but the teachers weren't happy with that either. So I just did what I
SCHWEITZER: Your first couple of books were juveniles. Did you encounter
the assumption from publishers that fantasy is for kids?
McKILLIP: Well the first book was more of a ghost story than a fantasy, and it
had a lot of English history in it. It's about the four hundred year old house that I
lived in as a kid over in England, and the priest-hole in the basement, and I
imagined ghosts down there. So it had a lot of history and not really a lot of
fantasy. But I published that when I was in college, getting my master's degree. I
was really, really embarrassed. I'd been reading Henry James and Faulkner and
God knows who all, and here I came out with this little YA novel, and was
published, and all the teachers were going, "Whoa!" I was going, "Oh, sorry!"
SCHWEITZER: But you had a published novel and they didn't.
McKILLIP: I think they were impressed.
SCHWEITZER: Are you then an entirely self-taught writer? It sounds like you
didn't get much from the educational system.
McKILLIP: I was taught by the books I read. I learned early that reading was just
as important as writing. You read everything you could get your hands on. You
wrote everything you could think of. Those are my two basic rules. Other than that
I did not really have writing courses, and the one really good teacher I had was a
poetry teacher, oddly enough. So he never saw my fantasy, though he liked it once
he got hold of a couple of my books.
SCHWEITZER: As I remember it, from the perception of the fantasy field, you
came on the map very suddenly in 1975 with Forgotten Beasts of Eld, which won
the first World Fantasy Award for novel, and everybody wondered, "Who is she?
What else has she written?" I've never seen your first two books, the ones that
came before that point, but I've heard about them as a result.
McKILLIP: The second one was The Throme of the Erril of Sherill, which is a
very short story. It is only about 50 pages long and is definitely a fairy tale, nicely
illustrated and bound. But it is not one that you would really find unless you were
looking for it. The third one was The Forgotten Beasts of Eld which won the
World Fantasy Award. That I wrote as an adult novel, but after it got rejected by
the adult department at Atheneum, my children's editor, Jean Karl, took it. She
wanted cross-over novels for teen-aged girls, which was kind of rare in those days.
SCHWEITZER: Did your career suddenly turn around as soon as that novel
crossed over in paperback into the adult fantasy category?
McKILLIP: Pretty much. When my editor called me and told me what the
financial offer was for the paperback of Forgotten Beasts, I told her I nearly fell off
my chair, and she said, "So did I." It wasn't that big by modern standards, but by
those earlier standards it certainly was. The next novel that came out was a basic
YA with no fantasy, and after that came the trilogy, and that launched my fantasy
SCHWEITZER: The rest is history, to coin a phrase. But to speak of history, the
generation before us doesn't seem to have had much use for fantasy. I think people
who grew up in the Depression were too caught up in daily life, and the ideology
of the time was certainly one which equated "serious literature" with realism. Then
things changed. Do you have any sense of why fantasy came back?
McKILLIP: I think that it was just what I said before. A whole generation grew
up and was able to go to college. I was certainly one of the first in either one of my
families to go to college. So we had a lot of different influences that our parents
didn't have. Tolkien just opened the doors to imagination. I think our generation
was ready for it, because when we were growing up we didn't have the immediate
concerns that our parents had, you know, in terms of paying the mortgage and stuff
like that, so we could let our minds sort of wander - and boy, they wandered!
SCHWEITZER: We're talking about a literature which is often called escapist,
but I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that the only people opposed to escape are
jailers. You must have gotten into these discussions when somebody asked you,
"Why don't you write anything serious?" Fantasy writers have to explain that it is
about something real. So how do you explain to people who ask questions like that,
what fantasy is about?
McKILLIP: I try to avoid explaining as much as possible. To me it is a very
profound thing. It is literally the quest to find the correlative stories that will make
you look at them and say, "Oh yes, I need to do this," or "I need this particular
symbol." You respond to these things. That's the heroic quest. I don't know. I keep
thinking of some kind of video game where images light up if you hit the right
button. I think it's very true as I was growing up that what I needed I found in
literature. Those symbols - my response to them - made me realize that this is
what fantasy was about, the quest for unification and peace within yourself. This
was the way you went about it. You fought your way through these various tales
that you needed, that you responded to.
SCHWEITZER: Joseph Campbell, for example, worked out a very elaborate
model of what the quest fantasy is about. I wonder: should fantasy writers be
thinking theoretically at all, or should they just do it?
McKILLIP: I think just doing it is important, because you know what you need
to do as you do it. But I have thought about it. You can't help thinking about it.
I've read some Jung and read Campbell and Robert Graves, gained enough from
them to realize that I wasn't the first person to be thinking about all this. It is a
legitimate way of looking at fantasy, but I don't have hard and fast rules about
what you should do in fantasy. It's what you need to do that's important.
SCHWEITZER: Do you feel any conflict between what you need to do and
what the marketplace demands? Is there any sense from the editors and publishers
that a fantasy is expected to have certain expected tropes or ingredients?
McKILLIP: Only in the sense that if I need to pay my mortgage, then I would
write something that would be sellable. I have done that. But I don't really think
that it compromised anything I needed to do. I still drag my feet at the idea of
writing about vampires or zombies. I don't think I could do it well.
SCHWEITZER: I think the appropriate response to a really tight formula is to
get silly. You could probably write a funny zombie story.
McKILLIP: [Laughs.] You could write a funny zombie story.
SCHWEITZER: After your Riddle Master trilogy you shifted to science fiction,
with Moon-Flash, Fool's Run, etc. for a few years. Why did this happen just then?
McKILLIP: After I finished the Riddle Master trilogy, I swore I would never
write another fantasy. That's how difficult the twelve-year process of writing it
was. A friend who loved both music and s/f encouraged me to try a science fiction
novel, so I put him into it as my keyboard playing musician. It took me eight years
to write that novel, partly because I was very much aware of the critical faculties of
s/f readers, and knew that I'd hear about it if I wrote it poorly. The YA novels
Moon-Flash and The Moon and the Face I wrote before I finished Fool's Run, as a
kind of respite from the difficulties of writing adult s/f.
I enjoy reading s/f, and some of the best of what I read is written by people with
degrees in science. I found that intimidating, back then.
SCHWEITZER: The Clute-Nichols Encyclopedia of Science Fiction goes so far
as to suggest that you are more at home with fantasy than with s/f. Would you
McKILLIP: I knew my way around fantasy; I had to flounder my way around in
s/f. So, yes, I think the Clute-Nichols Encyclopedia of S/F is correct: I am more
comfortable writing fantasy. I could use a much broader vocabulary in Fool's
Run, than I had writing the Trilogy. I could envision aliens and strange planets in
The Moon and the Face. All this is quite wonderful, and I enjoyed doing it very
But I don't think easily in terms of s/f. I did try other s/f ideas but they didn't get
off the ground. So I went back to what I knew best. In the late 80s everyone
seemed to be writing series. I envisioned writing a line of novels that had nothing
in common except that they were fantasy. So I started to work on that. And now,
after a couple of decades and many fantasy novels, I'd like a change.
SCHWEITZER: What are your writing methods like? Do you outline a novel?
Do you discover it as you write it?
McKILLIP: I try to write about four hours a day, because that is the limit to the
amount of time I can do absolutely nothing. If you do absolutely nothing long
enough, you get bored and start working. So that helps a bit. I don't outline. I tried
that once many years ago, and realized that once you have outlined the entire story,
it's just gone. There's no reason to write it. I'm trying to think if there is any one
way to do a novel. I don't know. . . . Some of them come easily. Some you have to
really research. Just flail about until you find whatever it is that makes you pause
and look at it and think there is a story in this somewhere. Then you start finding
SCHWEITZER: Do you write the first chapter without knowing what's in the
McKILLIP: No. I like to know. I like to think I know, but usually I don't.
SCHWEITZER: Some writers report that when they're writing a book,
sometimes something very odd happens and they wonder "Where did that come
from?" Has this ever happened to you?
McKILLIP: When I was writing Fool's Run, I had written half of it and then a
character popped up and I thought, "I need this character in the whole book." So I
had to go back and rewrite it. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is one that I just sat
down and wrote. It took me five weeks to write that thing, and I had no idea what
was going to happen, and that is very rare. Usually you have to work harder at it
than that, or I do. But I have to go back a little bit. My father was born during the
Depression and was one of those people who was rigidly Catholic and probably
never used what imagination he had. But he sat down with The Forgotten Beasts of
Eld before I published it. He was an Air Force captain by then - six kids,
thoroughly military - and he turned page after page. He told me later that he had to
keep reading it to find out what was going to happen. I thought that was just
wonderful. Actually he was out of the military by then. He was working for
Lockheed. He was very proud of that novel.
SCHWEITZER: Isn't this the essence of any storytelling, that it compels the
reader to turn the page to find out what will happen next?
McKILLIP: Yes, but my own father? Who would have thought?
SCHWEITZER: Obviously you had the power to captivate and convert people
. . . So, do you have any sense of what you'd like to do in a novel that you haven't
McKILLIP: I'd like to bring the world in more. I'm feeling a little over-extended
in fantasy these days and I would like to change the way I look at writing and
change what details I put in and see if there can be a different way of mingling
fantasy and reality and history and geology . . . you know, the various things we
encounter every single day. How do you put all that into a novel and call it
fantasy? That is what I am really curious about.
SCHWEITZER: Are you a fan of T.H. White? He was a writer who seemed to
just pour everything he knew and read and felt all into one book, The Once and
McKILLIP: That was one I read six times while I was in high school, even before
I read Tolkien. I should have remembered how much I loved that book. Yeah, but
his tone was such that he didn't tell us how to do things so much as show us what
kind of voice he had. I don't know. That novel is so complex that I cannot imagine
even trying to imitate it.
SCHWEITZER: I don't think imitation is what you want. Tolkien has been
imitated many times, but whenever somebody writes an imitation of Tolkien they
merely prove that he is inimitable. . . . So, what are you working on now?
McKILLIP: I am working on a novel to pay the mortgage and I am also trying to
work out a way of being happy with it, despite all its beginning flaws. I am just
trying to figure out what's wrong with it.
SCHWEITZER: I assume you'll wait until you're happy with it before you
publish it, so this is just part of the discovery process.
McKILLIP: It occurred to me that it's something I could sell. Maybe it's YA,
maybe it's adult. I don't know yet. I've been wanting to give up on it fifty times
since I started on it several months ago, but there is something about it that
intrigues me, and that part of it that intrigues me is what keeps me going, because I
don't know what it is that I want out of this yet.
SCHWEITZER: Presumably you are your own first reader, and you write to
please yourself first.
McKILLIP: Yes, and I am my own first critic. I really try and criticize
everything. I read like a critic and like a reader who is trying to love what she's
reading. Then my agent gets a hold of it and tells me where I have gone wrong, or
my husband reads it and he tells me it's boring. These things help.
SCHWEITZER: Most of your fantasies have been ones in which you immerse
the story in another world, as Tolkien does. But there's another approach, in which
the fantasy intrudes into our world. Have you felt any inclination to do this sort of
McKILLIP: Only in the sense that I'd like to write more about the real world
because had lots of words that I don't get to use in fantasy. I don't know, like
coffee urn and deodorant and stuff like that. You can't say those things in an epic
fantasy. Yeah, I would like to put fantasy in the real world. I just don't quite know
in what fashion yet. I would love it to somehow . . . I don't know. That's tough for
me. I'm still thinking about it. I haven't thought of it before.
SCHWEITZER: You could write a fantasy in which you mention coffee urns
and deodorant. It would be a very different kind of fantasy.
McKILLIP: You can mention things like that in The War for the Oaks or
something like that.
SCHWEITZER: We have a standard post-Tolkien fantasy now, in which the
setting is pre-industrial and rural, and that's why they don't have coffee urns in
them. But why does this have to be so? Is there something inherent in a pre-industrial setting that makes epic fantasy happen? Why couldn't they have a steam
engine in there?
McKILLIP: They do these days. They have steampunk all over the place. To me
that's fantasy too, and it's wonderful. [We are in the green room at the World
Fantasy Convention. Voice from behind us: "Coffee to your left and teapot to your
right."] That's something you can't hear in one of my fantasies, isn't it? I've
forgotten the question . . .
SCHWEITZER: Can we break out of the rules? Is our idea of what a fantasy is
McKILLIP: It is for me a little bit, because I have been writing this way for years
and years, but not for other people. Charles de Lint has his modern cities, and Nalo
Hopkinson's The Salt Roads was an incredible fantasy. I am not sure what exactly
it was, but it was amazing, and she ranged from Caribbean history to French
history to modern times. People do anything they want in fantasy nowadays. They
can use any language they want.
SCHWEITZER: Presumably you could do anything you wanted.
McKILLIP: Presumably. One would hope that I could change at my age.
SCHWEITZER: Why not? I am reminded of something Picasso said when he
was about 80. He was asked by an interviewer, "What are you doing now?" and he
said, "I'm looking for a new style."
McKILLIP: So am I.
SCHWEITZER: Thank you, Patricia McKillip.